Dr Nick Owen MBE PLUS

Working in and on the Business of Cultural Education


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Wakey Wakey! The Four Awakenings of Public Sector Change

Wakey Wakey!

The avuncular British entertainer, Billy Cotton, used to exhort his audiences at the start of his 1960s TV programmes with the clarion catch phrase call, Wakey Wakey! before whipping through an hour of traditional English light entertainment reminiscent of the old British dance band days of the 1920s and 30s.

His orchestra was one of the few which survived that era and made it to the modern world of the television whilst generating a fond nostalgia for the olden days of social certainties, moral rectitude and people knowing their place in the world.

His call to wake up was poignant. The era he had grown up in was way in the past, and he may well have been urging himself to wake up as much as he was exhorting his audience. But he kept awake and alert and successfully made the transition from old time English band leader and entertainer to nationally recognised radio and television star.

Strange though it may seem, there’s a lot of learning to be had from a fading English big band leader when it comes to understanding public sector change. That learning can help you be on top of the changes you’re going through, rather than being squashed by them.

There are three things to wake up to and to learn about change in the public sector, the first of which is eloquently hinted at in Yeats’ poem of 1924, The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…

“The centre cannot hold…” has been particularly true in the UK these days where financial pressures and huge shifts in what is expected of the public sector means that organisations are having to reinvent themselves – sometime willingly, sometimes kicking and screaming into the market place – in partnership with organisations from other sectors such as the voluntary, social enterprise and private sectors.

The Second Awakening concerns the question of organisational identity. One critical consequence of the centre falling apart is that organisational identity also comes under severe pressure, and in some cases, crisis. Organisations are no longer able to conceive of themselves in the same way and if they are to survive that pressure and fend off the crisis, and for their reinvention to be effective, they will require a fundamental change in organisational culture.

The Third Awakening results from an acknowledgement that organisational culture change comes about through changes in how we think about, and act upon, our understanding of what it is to work in partnership.

The Art of Falling Apart

Yeats isn’t alone with his observation of the centre falling apart. Goethe took the argument one stage further when he warned that political centralisation would lead to the destruction of all culture. In his conversation with Johann Peter Eckermann in 1828 he wrote:

“To be sure, the state has been compared to a living body with many parts, and a state’s capital thus might be compared to the heart, which supports the life and well being of its near and distant parts. If the parts are very far from the heart, however, the flow of life will become weaker and weaker…”

And more recently, the historian and philosopher Terry Eagleton in 2001 positively urged the benefits of the centre collapsing whilst noting some of the collateral damage that this entailed:

These days, centrality is distinctly uncool. The centre has been marginalised, and marginality, like Bohemian Manchester or Cornish fishing villages, is the place to be. With so many groups muscling in on them, from sexual and ethnic minorities to dog-on-a-rope anarchists, the margins have grown so crowded that there is now standing room only. Indeed, they have bulged to spread over most of the page. Like elitism, marginality isn’t possible if too many people want to do it. It is an uncomfortable place, yet, oddly, it is where a lot of people want to be. In this sense it is a bit like Bangkok or the Aran islands.

So, if the centre cannot hold despite our best intentions, it may be best to wake up to the fact, embrace its possibilities and wake up to the new identity our organisation is going to find itself with. The falling apart of the centre means that whilst our organisations might have been sleeping caterpillars in recent years, there every possibility that they can emerge into the sunlight as bright new butterflies ready to face the challenges ahead.

From pupae to butterfly: changing organisational culture

Organisational culture is a complex phenomenon. Nilofer Merchant in the Harvard Business Review described culture as: “all that invisible stuff that glues organizations together… norms of purpose, values, approach — the stuff that’s hard to codify, hard to evaluate, and certainly hard to measure and therefore
manage…”

She suggests there are three important questions to ask ourselves which tell us about the culture of an organisation:

Do We Trust Each Other?
Disagreements Mean What? and
Who Cares About the Baby?

She suggests that in an organisation with poor levels of trust, every team member “simply surrounds an issue much like a team of kids surrounds the ball. They then travel en masse, afraid to move away from the proverbial “ball.” In this culture, no one owns a position on the field. When they are huddling, what they are signalling is that they don’t know how to trust one another to do their unique part. They don’t know how to “let go” to and with others, thus risking their ability to scale results.

Her question about how organisations deal with disagreements indicate how dissent and diversity can be handled within the culture of an organisation: “When teams don’t know how to handle disagreement, molehill issues can become do-or-die mountains, or, conversely, passive-aggressiveness insinuates itself as a mechanism to avoid overt disagreements at all costs.”

The question of Who Cares About the Baby? might not seem appropriate for any organisation other than a large hospital but she describes a scenario which many of us may recognise:

“A team that is part of a 50,000+ organisation recently described an issue where one team does their best right up to a hand-off milestone, then relinquishes any part of the project’s ultimate success. They described their discomfort with this using a baby analogy. “Will you take care of my [baby] the same way I would, knowing our shared goal is to [get this kid to a good college]. When the “baby” or in this case, business performance isn’t co-owned by everyone, things can easily fall through the cracks.”

It’s not what you do, but the way that you do it

Merchant argues that it’s how we get things done which drives performance, not what gets done and that it’s organisational culture – the set of habits that gives people permission to cooperate by assumption rather than by negotiation – which is critical to success.

But there’s one difficult outcome of this acknowledgement of the power of culture which Merchant amongst many others recognise: culture will trump strategy, every time.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Culture will look at your well crafted business plan, chew it up and spit it out before you’ve had time to say “mission drift.” Merchant makes the cautionary observation:

“The best strategic idea means nothing in isolation. If the strategy conflicts with how a group of people already believe, behave or make decisions it will fail. Conversely, a culturally robust team can turn a so-so strategy into a winner. The “how” matters in how we get performance.”

Culture change through partnership

The Third Awakening that Billy Cotton might have advised were he still alive with his Big Band, is that if an organisation’s culture is to change and, critically, to stick, it’s imperative to bring in new thinking, new ideas, new blood and new cultural practices into the work place. In the UK, this has involved new partnership building between the public, private and social sectors although this is not without its difficulties as Diamond points out:

“Change agents in the way they bring together different (and sometimes competing) interest
groups (means) regeneration partnerships are, therefore, often the sites of unresolved
interest.”

So, if we accept that cultural change is inevitable, given the forging of new organisational identity following the falling apart of the centre, what framework might we need to steer us through the process of partnership building?

The Fourth Awakening – or Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse if you’re feeling particularly threatened by organisational change – is that the following principles are essential to partnership building: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and Knowledge.

Liberté: partnerships works best when both partners enter that partnership voluntarily and are not coerced into an arrangement that suits one partner better than the other. Liberté involves both commitment and compromise: accepting the need to be both focused on and committed to strategy whilst being flexible about tactics and delivery.

Egalité: partners need to respect language differences and appreciate that their way of knowing the world and acting upon it is not the only way of living the good life. Other partners will speak differently, use different metaphors and will not have the same language constraints: the value of the partnership is in appreciating those differences in language and not railroading over them.  A GSOH – a Good Sense of Humour – is essential here. It takes time to understand each other and there will be misunderstandings along the way. The task is to accept these moments in good grace and not storm out of the room in high dudgeon as if your mother has just been insulted.

Fraternité: partners need to accept that your organisational weight is not the be all and end-all. It’s not just your history that makes you a partner: you have to bring on-going skills, knowledge and wisdom to this process not just a superior histori-cultural capital. A decent partnership isn’t a forced marriage where you bring your ugly self and explain it away with the large financial contribution you’re bringing to justify your place at the table. Fraternité embraces the principles of dialogue as opposed to monologue. Partners need to talk with each other, not at each other.

Knowledge Partnership building can be like a completing a jigsaw puzzle without having the benefit of having the box top with the completed picture in front of you. But you can lessen your organisational anxiety if you know where you are in the building process which roughly follows the following pattern:

1. Scoping: involves identifying personnel, ideas, facts, figures, whims, daydreams, ‘what-ifs’, impossible scenarios, dull ideas, bright ideas, snatches of speech, the flotsam and jetsam of everyday and not so every day life.

2. Planning: identifying where are the connections between your collections, what they lead to, what links suggest themselves and summoning up the new world your partnership will generate.

3. Building: involves combining the components into infrastructure and not being afraid to jettison structures that don’t fit (they may belong to another project which you are unaware of at this point in time) or changing the infrastructure itself. “Killing your darlings” is a phrase you might hear here a lot. It involves focusing on the form and content of your partnership; being sure that everything in it has a purpose, a role and a function.

4. Delivering: the eventual rolling out the work of the partnership in order to achieve the aims and objectives you have set yourselves.

5. Evaluating: asking yourself has the partnership delivered? And if so, how? and if not, why not? And then back to the drawing board to revisit and revise.

A final caveat

Partnership building can be a highly satisfying process which enables organisations to deliver far more together than they could ever achieve alone. It’s essential to driving effective public sector change. This can be attractive to a range of potential partners, some of whom aren’t necessarily driven by the same values as yourselves: so ensure that your partners have something at stake when they come to your table, or they may just end up taking the table away.

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